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What is sustainable packaging? And why it matters to your business

Matt Dobson: Last Updated 16th February 2024
Posted In: Environment | Guides and Advice
https://www.gwp.co.uk/author/Matt-Dobson/ xx 31179

Defining sustainable packaging

Understanding sustainability and how it impacts your organisation

If you find yourself asking “What is sustainable packaging?” you are not alone. As an average consumer in the Western world, you’ll likely handle more than 50 packaged items every day. And with packaging being so prevalent in everyday life, it is one of the main factors in making everyone more aware of their ecological footprint.

But what is sustainable packaging?

Sustainable packaging minimises environmental impact whilst maintaining its functional requirement. It can take the form of recyclable or reusable packs or involve reducing material and resource use. All forms of packaging – used to present, protect, ship or store products – can be sustainable if designed correctly.

Scraps of cardboard with a sustainable packaging slogan
The question of what is sustainable packaging is becoming ever more important.

Packaging, of course, plays a crucial role in modern life. And as a responsible packaging supplier, GWP aims to present you with the facts and an honest, balanced point of view in this guide and its related articles.

This open and unbiased approach allows you to make an informed decision on the most suitable eco-friendly packaging option for your business, your customers, and the wider environment.

Contents

Introduction

A growing focus on packaging

Although Blue Planet and its focus on ocean pollution was arguably the most significant catalyst, it has long been common for the packaging and the wider industry to receive bad press.

Non-recyclable materials. Too much single-use plastic. Excessive use of materials and resources. Landfill. Harm to marine and other environments. The list goes on and on.

These issues are why there is now such a focus on – and drive towards – sustainable packaging.

A plastic bottle washed up on a beach
Single use bottles and similar plastics are rightly seen as unsustainable packaging.

Sustainable packaging definition

But what is it that makes packaging sustainable? Are the claims of global brands, packaging manufacturers and environmental campaigners (which often contradict each other) actually true?

So, before highlighting the types of sustainable packaging that may be applicable to your business and operations, it is essential first to identify precisely what is meant by sustainable packaging.

“Sustainable packaging is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves increased use of life cycle inventory (LCI) and life cycle assessment to help guide the use of packaging, which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint. ” (source: wikipedia.org).

The key point to take away from this neat summary is “packaging which reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint.”

To consider this involves looking at the bigger picture, effectively the entire lifecycle of your packaging. Factors include use in the supply chain, basic function, marketing, usefulness to consumers and what happens at the end of the packaging’s life.

Another definition addresses what are termed the three common pillars of sustainability: Social (people), Environmental (planet) and Economic (profit).

Effectively, “sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Background and history

Why and how packaging impact became important

It is possible to trace sustainability in packaging back to the environmental movement of the 1970s. However, at this stage, the focus was on pollution and littering (including the iconic crying Indian anti-litter commercial produced as part of the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign).

Packaging, however, became more of a specific focus in the 1980s when the “Garbage Barge” became a media sensation – with the rejection of waste from Long Island residents at several landfill sites before eventually being incinerated.

The saga raised awareness of how much waste the average person was producing and how large a proportion was packaging.

There was, in turn, a sustained effort to reduce and minimise the volume of waste. Achieved partly through increasing recycling rates of used packaging, it also led to establishing an economically viable infrastructure for various packaging materials. Such improvements, however, remain a work in progress even today.

The beginnings of sustainable packaging

The term “sustainability” was only adopted by the packaging industry as late as 2006.

Coined by Andrew Savitz after the publication of “The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success – and How You Can Too”, the book details the move towards sustainability within businesses. The book also covers how and why you should increasingly view financial success as going hand in hand with social and environmental achievement.

This broader viewpoint builds on the previous environmental-only outlook, including economic and social criteria, ethical sourcing of material and even manufacturing conditions.

A person holding a plastic bag full of waste packaging
Sustainable packaging is about more than just recycling, taking in various other factors.

As a result, sustainable packaging is no longer just about recycling. Packaging is frequently scrutinised and used to measure a business’s overall sustainability. It remains true even though packaging does not typically contribute anywhere near the environmental impact of other activities such as transportation, water and energy use.

So whilst looking at the lifecycle of packaging – from raw materials through disposal – has become more commonplace over the last decade, much of the focus remains on end-of-life.

Types of sustainable packaging

Different types of sustainability?

But what does this really mean?

Well, sustainability can mean different things to different people. To many, the common forms of sustainability (or at least those recognised by consumers) are recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging.

These are all valid forms of sustainable packaging. But it is also possible to justify using returnable and reusable packaging – primarily made from plastics – as sustainable.

There are other strategies to consider too. For example, the reuse of packaging can minimise the overall volumes of raw materials required. Minimising damage – and the environmental impact of remanufacturing and damaged products going to landfill – can also significantly improve overall sustainability. Even redesigning packaging to reduce bulk/volume and weight can reduce carbon from increased transit.

Ultimately, there are numerous ways packaging can be made more sustainable by substantially reducing environmental impact and the overall ecological footprint.

A reusable plastic tote in a warehouse
Reusable packaging can often be more sustainable than packaging that is easily recycled.

What type of packaging is environmentally friendly?

Various definitions of sustainable packaging are readily available. But there is still a lot of common misperception and myths surrounding what makes packaging environmentally friendly.

As such, the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC) has spent considerable time and resources setting out their proposal of what makes environmentally friendly packaging.

The results of their work suggest that sustainable, eco-friendly packaging should adhere to the following points.

  • Packaging is beneficial, safe and healthy for individuals and communities throughout its life cycle.
  • The packaging meets market criteria for both performance and cost.
  • It is sourced, manufactured, transported, and recycled using renewable energy.
  • It incorporates and optimises (where possible) renewable or recycled source materials.
  • The packaging is manufactured using clean production technologies and best practices (e.g. ISO).
  • Is made from materials that are healthy in all possible end-of-life scenarios.
  • It can be effectively recovered and utilised in biological or industrial closed-loop cycles.
  • Has a physical design that optimises materials and energy.

Consumer behaviour

Increasing demand for packaging sustainability

Another driver of increasing sustainability within the packaging industry is changing consumer habits and demands.

Many businesses’ “environmental credentials” can often be little more than a marketing tactic (part of the reason why there are so many different recycling symbols on packaging). However, several facts and figures from research show the impact this can have on sales and brand perception.

Regardless of how sustainable a pack really is, there is strong evidence to support a general shift in consumer behaviour and demand for sustainable packaging.

Statistics: Consumers and sustainable packaging

Statistics regarding consumer preferences and sustainable packaging include:

  • 51% of Millennials will check packaging before purchasing for sustainability claims.
  • 70% of all consumers are likely to be influenced by environmentally friendly packaging.
  • 39% of consumers always or often look for environmental information on beverage packaging.
  • 70% of consumers have purchased an environmentally friendly product even when it costs more.
  • 66% of consumers have avoided a particular product or brand for environmental reasons.
A cardboard box used for an eCommerce delivery
With consumer behaviour and preferences changing, sustainable packaging is now a must.

Business advantages

Tangible business benefits of using sustainable packaging

Considering these figures, if your business takes a proactive stance on moving to sustainable packaging, it can give you a competitive advantage and open potential new target consumers and markets.

For many businesses, becoming truly sustainable makes economic and environmental sense.

However, even knowing the options available to your business, there may still be some inertia regarding switching to genuinely sustainable packaging. Common fears surround performance, costs, availability and compatibility with existing processes and systems.

Regardless of these challenges, switching to sustainable packaging has many significant benefits.

Summary of business advantages

The main business advantages of using sustainable packaging are:

  • Improved brand and consumer perception, leading to the potential for increased sales.
  • Opportunity for unique brand positioning in specific markets.
  • Potential for increased sales amongst certain demographics.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction through more straightforward disposal and recycling of packaging.
  • Cost reductions through minimised material usage.
  • Reduced costs through increased lifespan and longevity (e.g. returnable containers in the supply chain).
  • Reducing your organisation’s carbon footprint.
  • Potential reduction in transit costs through minimised materials and volume.
  • Possible savings in storage and warehouse requirements (dependent on materials used).
Jiffy bags and cardboard boxes being delivered to a consumer.
Choosing the right sustainable packaging for your business can have significant advantages.

Summary

Understanding what is sustainable packaging

Whilst sustainability can mean different things to different businesses, it is crucial to consider the bigger picture.

Ensuring that your packaging minimises harm to the environment, is not resource intensive, and maintains functional and economic performance can significantly benefit your business.

If you need any assistance with sourcing the most sustainable packaging for your specific products, industry, application or business, GWP can help. We are a sustainable packaging company that have more than 30 years of experience in designing and manufacturing packaging that is inherently sustainable. Please get in touch to find out more.

Further reading

About the Author

Matt Dobson, GWP Group Marketing Manager

Matt Dobson

Marketing Manager | GWP Group

Matt has worked in the packaging industry for over 10 years, having joined GWP Group as Marketing Executive in 2012. [Read full bio]

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